Saturday 20 December 2014

Say it loud – I'm red and proud

After suffering years of abuse from schoolmates and even strangers, Gabrielle Monaghan meets the women reclaiming pride in their hair colour

Aoife Walsh, the first redhead to be crowned Miss Ireland
Aoife Walsh, the first redhead to be crowned Miss Ireland
Gemma Hassett. Photo by Brian Gavin
Amy McLoughlin
Sarah Mullins - Queen of the redheads. Photo by Darragh Kane
Catherine Duffy. Photo by Daragh McSweeney
Aoife Walsh

As a teenager, Aoife Walsh, the first redhead to win Miss Ireland, was mercilessly teased over her fiery Titian hair. She even considered dyeing it a different colour when she was subjected to jibes such as "ginger minger".

Aoife is now one of six models fronting this month's anti-bullying "shield" campaign run by the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The campaign, whose celebrity supporters include Brian O'Driscoll, encourages children and schools to take a stand against bullying.

The 24-year-old is amongst the growing number of redheads who have faced prejudice and cruel taunts simply because of their hair colour and complexion. For some, the ginger-bashing – a phenomenon often classed as "gingerism" – is so extreme they would like to see bullying of redheads treated as a hate crime.

Amy McLoughlin, a 22-year-old who lives in Enfield, Co Meath, shares this sentiment. She suffered from depression after being tormented as a child for having red hair. Amy now writes a blog called Red Lips, Red Hair, where she celebrates her new-found pride in the red hair she once dyed black in an effort to fend off bullies.

"When I was in first year at secondary school, I was verbally and mentally abused by a guy," she says.

"It was very scary but the school was great about it.

"When I was 14 or 15, my make-up bag was nicked out of my bag and they pushed my books all over the floor.

"I hated being different. For three years, I dyed my hair. First it was black, then purple, then Rihanna-red and then back to black. When the roots would grow out, people would point out my red hair. But dyeing it was what I needed to do to feel more comfortable in my own skin. They were making me miserable and I was sick of it."

Catherine Duffy, a 42-year-old redhead from Youghal, says both she and her red-haired son have been singled out by bullies. She was treated for depression as a teenager because of taunts over her hair and freckles. Despite her family telling Duffy that her wavy red hair was beautiful, she kept it tied back throughout her teens and became "very withdrawn" because she "hated" herself.

"I remember dreading coming home from school, because I used to have pass a gang sitting on the wall, and they'd shout out things like 'copper top', 'did your mother leave you out in the rain too long?' and 'join the dots'," Catherine says. "I never got a physical beating because I was a good runner. But it was a really lonely time.

"I had quite a lot of freckles on my arms. One day at school, I was in the changing room for hockey, and a girl looked at my arms and said 'it looks like someone shat on you through a sieve'. I didn't eat for three days after that.

"When I was 16, my father, an army officer, was transferred to Jerusalem, and for the first time in my life I felt people looked at me differently.

"I've lived and travelled to many countries and gained a wealth of self-confidence. But my own people, the Irish, have been the hardest on me. I would put all this on a par with racism, because you're made to feel different about the colour of your hair."

After Catherine became a mother, she was horrified to discover that Alan, one of her two sons, had to endure similar bullying. After living in America for seven years, she returned to live in Youghal while her husband, who was in the Marine Corps and stationed in Japan.

It didn't. Méabh is now 28 and immensely proud of her red tresses. Yet the jokes and jibes about her appearance have not faded.

"A huge number of people have made it very clear that they do not like my hair," says the multimedia designer. "There have been regular comments and abuse shouted from cars. Sometimes people would just simply point and laugh.

"I'd hear people talk about me on the bus, at the hairdressers, in the cinema. I am treated differently because of my colouring."

Irish Independent

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